A large shopper turnout expected for Friday speaks to the fact that people are further behind in their holiday shopping than a year or two ago and want big bargains, no matter if it means hitting stores in the pre-dawn hours — or even on Thanksgiving Day.

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A free $20 gift card for being among the first 150 customers at REI stores Friday morning? Only $29 for a kid’s bike if you line up at Wal-Mart by midnight? A $10-off coupon for using websites such as Foursquare to “check in” on your iPhone at J.C. Penney stores?

The holiday shopping season officially begins Friday amid widespread economic uncertainty, and stores are rolling out a dizzying array of new promotions to lure recession-wary shoppers away from rival retailers.

The National Retail Federation predicts a 2.3 percent increase in holiday sales this year after a 1.1 percent gain last year and a 3.4 percent drop in 2008. In Washington state, the outlook is a bit brighter: State economist Arun Raha projects holiday sales will rise 4 percent, although that’s after two straight years of declines.

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Still, shoppers are expected to head to the mall with a stagnant job market in the back of their minds, so stores will be at least as promotional as last year, said Phoenix-based retail consultant Jeff Green.

“Whatever the numbers say doesn’t really mean anything,” Green said. “Even if people perceive the economy is turning around, it isn’t that they feel this is the end of the recession. People are pretty nervous.”

Nearly a third of U.S. households, or 31 percent, plan to shop the day after Thanksgiving, up from 26 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers survey. A large turnout expected for Friday speaks to the fact that people are further behind in their holiday shopping than a year or two ago and want big bargains, no matter if it means hitting stores in the pre-dawn hours.

Then again, bargain hunters need not wait until Friday morning. Toys R Us stores plan to open at 10 p.m. Thursday, and for the first time in its 124-year history; Sears will be open Thanksgiving Day, from 7 a.m. to noon. About 40 stores at Alderwood mall in Lynnwood, including Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Zumiez, will open later at midnight.

“The retailer’s goal is to be the one shoppers visit first, because that’s where they’ll spend the most time and money,” said retail federation spokeswoman Ellen Davis. “When you’re on your fifth store, are you really in the mood to browse for two hours? Probably not.”

Stores will closely watch the local weather forecast in hopes of avoiding another disastrous season like the one in 2008, when heavy snowfall before Christmas prevented many shoppers from getting to the mall to make last-minute purchases. If Monday is any indication, stores could be in for yet another bad break.

But Weather Trends International Chief Executive Bill Kirk says the cold snap might actually boost sales this Friday. His only caveat: Temperatures had better stay above freezing, as predicted, so shoppers don’t contend with dicey driving conditions.

“You’re now going to go out and buy winter necessities — electric blankets, gloves, hats, mittens and fire logs — and while you’re at it, you’re going to buy gifts,” he said. “If it had been really, really warm, all you’d buy on Friday was gifts.”

Smartphone advantage

Besides holiday wish lists, shoppers will be armed with smartphones to cut through large crowds and in-store clutter. About a fourth of U.S. smartphone owners say they’ll use their devices to make holiday purchases or research products, including 45 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the National Retail Federation.

In turn, stores will cater to smartphone users with newly designed websites and mobile apps that enable them to compare prices, get directions, read product reviews and receive coupons.

“Instead of spending two hours at the mall, people can now spend a half-hour there and go directly to what they want to buy,” said Dick Outcalt, of the Seattle-based Outcalt and Johnson: Retail Strategists. “You can sit in your car in a parking lot outside Sears, and with your smartphone, find what you want and tell someone in the store to meet you at the front door with it.”

Online stores, which are expected to see double-digit growth this holiday season, also have stepped up their promotions.

Walmart.com said it will offer free online shipping for about 60,000 items during the holidays — the opening salvo in a fierce battle between Internet giant Amazon.com and traditional retail powerhouses.

Seattle-based Amazon, which already offers free shipping for purchases above $25, said Monday it’s giving away a one-month trial of Amazon Prime, providing customers with free, two-day shipping through the holidays. A Prime membership costs $79 a year.

What’s more, Target.com recently introduced an aggressive shipping offer, promising free delivery for online shoppers who spend $50 or more. The deal covers 800,000 items and lasts until Dec. 11.

“The theme this year is www-dot-SantaAtNorthPole-dot-com, if that were a website,” Outcalt said.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

Weather Trends International CEO

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